Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas visitors at ISS

Soyuz FG rocket lifts off the pad at Baikonur into a wintery blue sky.
On Sunday Dec 17, the second half of the Expedition 54 team left Russia for a two-day chase to the International Space Station. On board the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft were Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov (Roscosmos), Scott Tingle (NASA), and Norishige Kanai (JAXA). They docked at the station on Tuesday morning. 
Before the launch, at the simulator (L-R): Kanai, Shkaplerov, and Tingle.
This is Shkaplerov's third trip to the ISS. This time he will take over as station commander when the current lead crew returns to Earth. FOr Kanai, though this may be his first spaceflight, he previously made a two-week stay in the seabase off the Florida coast in 2015, simulating communications protocols in a future Mars mission with long signal delays.  Scott Tingle has been a Navy test pilot and also flew as a member of the elite Blue Diamonds demonstration team. He has 54 combat missions to his credit, and joined NASA in 2009. This is his first flight to space. 
Current spacecraft docking locations at the ISS.
November and December have seen a busy schedule of flights to and from the station. The Cygnus resupplu spacecraft arrived on November 13 for a three week stay. After delivering its supplies, the spacecraft undocked on December 6 for a 12 day period of free-flight testing, before entering the Earth's atmosphere on December 18 for a fiery end. During that time it also launched 14 Nanorack Cubesats.
Cygnus OA-8, named SS Gene Cernan.
 SpaceX launched another Dragon supply ship CRS-13 on Dec. 8. This time, both the capsule (C-108) and the Falcon 9 rocket are being used a second time, as part of SpaceX's re-usable spacecraft system. It is currently docked to the US-built Harmony module. 

CRS-13 docked to the Harmony module.
On Thursday Dec. 14, Soyuz MS-05 undocked from the ISS for a return to Earth. In Command of the spacecraft was Sergei Ryazansky (Roscosmos), accompanied by Randy Bresnik (NASA) and Paolo Nespoli (ESA). Bresnik had been Commander of Expedition 53 before leaving the station in the capable hands of Misurkin, commanding Expedition 54. 
Beautiful picture of returning Soyuz capsule over Kazakhstan.
Sadly, it has been reported that astronaut Bruce McCandless II has died. He was made famous around the world for the image of him in the shuttle EVA suit flying tether-free around the space shuttle. Most people are unaware, but he served as Houston Mission Control communicator during the historic moonwalk of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 in 1969. He also was part of the crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-31 in the shuttle Discovery.
McCandless in his official NASA WSS press photograph, strapped into the Manned Maneuvering Vehicle (MMV).
One of the most famous photos of the Shuttle period, McCandless flies free in the MMV during mission STS-41B around the space shuttle Challenger.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

50 Years Ago: Apollo 4 Flight Get US Closer to the Moon

Lift-off of the mighty Saturn V rocket assembly from pad 39. NASA.

After the fire disaster of Apollo 1, tests still continued while lessons were learned and changes were made to the Apollo command and service modules. Possibly faulty wiring and systems in the Apollo Block 1 command modules were redesigned to bring newer, better safety factors in line with program directives. There was still a use for the Block 1 command modules though, and the flight of Apollo 4 was one of them.
Stages being assembled in the giant Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB.

The Apollo 4 mission, also designated as AS-501, was the first mission to start with the Apollo naming protocol. The families and friends of the Apollo 1 fire tragedy had insisted failed test being redesignated as Apollo1.  Three other Saturn test flights had occurred before this mission, but had used the Saturn 1b first stage for the unmanned tests. This Apollo 4 mission had been delayed from its original date in 1966, due to the Apollo 1 Stand-down and the delays in re-wiring and re-equipping the newer Block 2 capsules. Thus it was that this mission would use a still-functional, unmanned Apollo Block 1 capsule as a test capsule to record data during the flight.
The fully-fitted Saturn V stack inside the VAB, in one of the four assembly bays. On a humid day, tiny clouds could form at the very top inside the building.

Roll-out of Apollo4 on the giant crawler and tower transporter, slowly moving away from the VAB.

Apollo 4 in place on pad 39A. The crawler has already unlocked and moved away from the launch base.

 The Saturn V's first stage heaving the rocket into the upper atmosphere.
Liftoff finally occurred on November 9. This was the first flight of the Stage 1C and S-2 second stage. It was the first time NASA had restarted the S-IV-B third stage. The capsule was placed into a high arc to simulate the returning velocity of capsule coming back from the moon. The capsule safely passed through re-entry, chutes deployed, and it landed in the Pacific ocean not far from the recovery ship USS Bennington. It was a hugely important mission, because it proved that the Saturn V could work, and that the systems were in place to get men to the Moon and back safely before the end of the decade.
Apollo 4 capsule ends its trip in the Pacific Ocean.

Apollo 4 command module next to the USS Bennington before retrieval.

The Apollo 4 capsule is on display at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The hatch is open so that you can see inside.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

October was a Busy Month for Expedition 53

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei on EVA during one of the first two spacewalks in October. (NASA)

While science experiments and observations continue onboard the International Space Station, so does the unending resupply and maintenance of equipment. This month saw the crew perform three spacewalks working on the robotic arm, and a supply mission docking from Russia.
Astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei making it look easy.

The spacewalk series was interrupted by the Progress docking, so let's start with the October 5th EVA. Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and astronaut Mark Vande Hei  began the triple EVAs with a 6 hour and 55 minute walk to replace one of two Latching End Effectors (LEEs) on the robotic CanadArm2. The LEEs are designed to grapple objects before moving them. The astronauts also worked on some module insulation and cables.

The next EVA took place October 10th, again with Bresnik and Vande Hei. Over 6 hours and 26 minutes, they worked to lubricate the newly installed LEE, and then replaced a camera system on the end of the arm.

Russian Progress cargo spacecraft approaches the station near an already-docked Soyuz.

Before the astronauts could complete their 3rd EVA of October, Russia attempted to launch Progress 68P to the station to deliver supplies. The launch was scrubbed on October 12, due to faulty  equioment on the launch pad at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The problem was quickly fixed and a second attempt to launch was more successful on October 14. Instead of flying a shortened 6-hour flight to the ISS, ground controllers used a older 2-day approach plan for the craft. It arrived at the ISS on October 16th. The craft (also known as Progress MS-07) docked at the Russian-made Pirs module. 

Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Pauolo Nespoli (ESA) help Joe Acaba move into the airlock.
The final EVA of October took place on the 20th, and lasted 6 hours and 49 minutes. They attached another camera to the CanadArm2, and completed some minor work. The EVA made the 5th spacewalk for Randy Bresnik and the 3rd for Joe Acaba,
The next major event for Expedition 53 will be a launch of Orbital ATK's Cygnus supply mission.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Last of the Summer ISS Traffic

Space Voyagers prepare to bard their spacecraft. Top to bottom: Alexander Misurkin, Joe Acaba, Mark Vande Hei.
As we approach the time for summer to transition to fall, one spacecraft arrived at ISS while another took its leave. Soyuz MS-06 lifted off from Baikonur on Tuesday, carrying the second half of the Expedition 53 crew. The Soyuz was piloted by Soyuz commander Alexander Misurkin (Roscosmos), and flight engineers Joe Acaba and Mark Vende Hei both of NASA. Both Misurkin and Acaba are veterans of previous space missions. Vande Hei is making his first trip into space. The crew will stay aboard the International Space Station for five and a half months, eventually becoming the lead half of Expedition 54.

Soyuz rocket departs at night from Baikonur.

The crew joins Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and flight engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos) and Paolo Nespoli (ESA). As well as working on over 200 experiments in the next half year, the team is preparing for three spacewalks during October. 
After undocking, the Dragon gently moves away from the ISS before commencing re-entry procedures.
On the 17th, the SpaceX Dragon unmanned cargo ship undocked and was moved awy from its berth by the robotic arm, under the control of astronaut Bresnik. Once at a safe distance, ground engineers fired the descent thrusters and slowed the craft for re-entry. Splashdown in the Pacific off of California took place at 10:14 a.m.  This had been the 12th resupply mission with Dragon for SpaceX.

Space Station parking before the Dragon left the station.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

X-37b Launches before Kennedy Gets Hit by Irma

Falcon 9 rocket with X-37b aboard launches from Kennedy Space Center. (SpaceX)

SpaceX Made a beautiful launch Thursday of their Falcon 9 rocket, this time without their Dragon resupply space capsule. In another first for the company, the US Air Force had chosen SpaceX to lift the secretive X-37b re-usable winged spacecraft into orbit. Normally the Atlas V has been the rocket of choice, but now the military is looking to lower costs and prove the concept of using different boosters. 

An X-37b spacecraft on the runway after landing. Service crew gives a good indication of size. (NASA)

This was the fifth launch of an X-37b. While the Air Force does not announce which of the two spacecraft was in use, NASA reports that the Air Force alternates between the two craft, which would mean this is the third mission for the first spacecraft to fly. The Air Force also does not comment on the expected length or purpose of the mission. Fans of the X-37b will be diligently following any reports by satellite spotters of changes in orbit. 

Damage to the Vehicle Assembly Building after hurricane Matthew in 2016. (NASA)

Shortly after the launch, and then the recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage, the Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX, the Air Force, and other companies located at Cape Canaveral began shutdown and safety procedures in advance of this weekend's hit by hurricane Irma. The hurricane is very wide and although it is set to travel up the length of the Florida west coast, the storm will reach to the other side of the state and could cause damage to structures and equipment. 

For more information on the threat levels used by NASA and the story of how the Space Center prepares for a hurricane, check out the detailed article at NASA

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Expedition 52 Returns to Earth

Great picture of Soyuz MS-04 landing.

Alas, it was time for her to come home. Peggy Whitson left the International Space Station after 288 days, some of which was unplanned but welcome. That means she now holds the American record of 665 days in space throughout all her missions. The World record is held by Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who has currently 879 days in his name. He will have more, as he is scheduled to return to the ISS in September next year.
Preparing to close the hatch to Soyuz MS-04. L-R: Peggy Whitson, Fyodor Yurchikhin, and Jack Fischer. They undocked from ISS at 5:58 pm on Friday. Landing occurred at 11:22 pn Eastern time.

Originally, MS-04 was supposed to land with only two occupants. It had arrived at the ISS four and a half months ago, with just Yurchikhin and Fischer on board. The Russian agency Roscosmos was temporarily reducing crew members while a new space station module is under construction, due to be installed on the ISS next year. This allowed NASA to keep Peggy Whitson on board for extra time and increase the availability of slots for NASA personnel. 

Crew of ISS with flags from participating nations.

Officially, once the Soyuz undocked, Expedition 53 began under the command of NASA astronaut Commander Randy Bresnik, and crewed also by flight engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos) and Paulo Nespoli (ESA). They will be on their own until more crew arrives in mid-September.

You can read more about Peggy Whitson's career in space at NASA

Sunday, August 20, 2017

ISS: Dragon Arrives and Russians Take a Walk

SpaceX Dragon resupply cargo vessel orbiting Earth and about to dock with the ISS. NASA pic.

SpaceX made another great launch last Monday, August 14th. The Falcon 9 rocket lifted the Dragon cargo spacecraft into orbit, and then flew back to Earth for a soft landing back at Cape Canaveral. The Dragon carried thousands of pounds of supplies and experiments for the crew on Expedition 52 in the International Space Station. 

NASA graphic of the current spacecraft locations on the ISS.

After a two day "chase" the Dragon spacecraft caught up to the ISS and maneuvered into a capture position. Astronauts Jack Fischer and Paulo Nespoli used the robotic arm to grab the capture point and guide the craft to its docking adapter. Eventually the spacecraft was secured at the new Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) on the US Harmony module. Dragon will remain at the station for unloading, and then reloading of items to return to Earth in September.

Cosmonauts Fyodor Yurchkhin (L) and Sergey Ryazanskiy (R) preparing to exit.

On Thursday, August 17, Russian cosmonauts conducted an EVA to launch satellites and bring samples back inside. Expedition 53 commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Sergey Ryazanskiy left the Russian Pirs module for a seven hour spacewalk. They launched five nanosatellites that had been stored outside the station from a previous supply mission. One of the satellites was to test 3-D printed materials, while several others were commemorative or experimented with communications.